Robert Mannyng of Brunne's Handlyng Synne, a 12,658 line poem in octosyllabic couplets, is a Middle English confessional collection of exhortations and highly moral illustrative tales. A translation, adaption, and expansion of the anonymous Anglo-Norman penitential Manuel des Pechiez, Handlyng Synne exemplifies the characteristics of penitentials and their descendants, the confessional guides and didactic tale collections.(1) Intriguing as a social document, Handlyng Synne is also a complex literary text which illustrates the often labyrinthine relationships of didactic tales and their frames. The use of exempla, the carefully numbered and subdivided organizational scheme, and the emphasis on penance and confession all make it an excellent example of the fourteenth-century flowering of penitentials. Attention to Mannyng usually focuses on the importance of his work in the development of the English penitential movement, and because penitentials are often cited as an important step in the formation of the major medieval narrative collections such as Confessio Amantis and The Canterbury Tales, lists of important analogues and sources consistently cite Handlyng Synne.(2) Yet, even though the text is so clearly attuned to the concerns of the age, and it plays an important part in the development of other canonized texts, commentary on the poem has remained largely descriptive rather than literary.(3)
Mannyng begins the text by aligning himself, also a sinner, with his audience in their joint journey through confession and penance, "At by wrshepe shul we begynne / To shame the fend shewe our synne" (lines 3-6).(4) Using statements of author-audience solidarity, "me and the" (10), Mannyng assumes an ideal readership, a homogenous English-speaking Christian community, contrite and ripe for knowledge of confession and penance; and it is this group that he admonishes throughout Handlyng Synne to forgo the actions of the complex and stubbornly sin-inclined populations of the "other" world in his exempla.(5) He expands the audience of earlier penitentials, which instructed confessors in mediating general theoretical ideas and actual practice, and addresses a primary constituency, not only confessors but also confessants. Together, they all will seek confession and penance, "And a party wythe penaunce smerte, / thys ys a skyle that hyt may be tolde, / Handlyng synne many a folde" (111-13).
While much of his structure and language invokes the theoretical readership of clerics, Mannyng also addresses the real community of Sempringham. We know from the records of the Gilbertine establishment for which he wrote that his actual penitential audience represented a diversity of didactic necessities: learned and lewed, written and oral, religious and lay, male and female.(6) The Gilbertines were themselves a microcosm of medieval variety: educated canons and nuns lived with illiterate lay brothers and sisters in divided houses. Within this heterogenous environment of Sempringham, Mannyng may have been a Master of the Novices. As such, our learned, Cambridge-educated canon who later served as a chaplain would have had a mixed male and female audience of the lewed, the learning, and the learned.(7)
In conformity with the universal intent of Canon 21 of the Fourth Lateran Council Omnis utruisque sexus fidelis to provide essential religious instruction for the entire Christian community, male and female, Mannyng directs perfunctory mutual address at both men and women, such as "to man or wyff" (5064) and "whether hyt be lord or lady" (7251) in various admonitions throughout the text. Yet, this seems a formality; in reality, Handlyng Synne does not manifest a pervasive awareness of the sensibilities of a mixed audience. It is Mannyng's instruction on gender issues to his mixed audience which interests me here. His gendered dichotomies portray women, not as co-strivers in faith, but as signs of good or evil that function to augment male religious experience. …